Semiotics Field Research

a sign with a circle and cross through an icon of a cigarette.

Semiotics is the study of signs. Look around you; meanings embedded in signs are all around. This tool will help you identify various signs, their parts, and the meanings people may make of them in the field.

Learn more about Semiotics.

Below are five signifiers you should seek out: word, image, sound, object, and gesture.

Written or spoken word(s).

You: What concept(s) does the word(s) evoke in you?

  • You: What concept(s) does the word(s) evoke in you?
  • Other: What concept(s) could the word(s) evoke for someone very different from you?

What concept(s) could the word(s) evoke for someone very different from you?

What type of sign is this?

  • Icon: The word(s) resemble the concept being signified
  • Index: When we see the word, it suggests something else is going on
  • Symbolic: The shapes of the letters or words are arbitrary, but we know the meaning because we learned it somewhere

Note: almost all language is symbolic!

Is this word(s) problematic, considering its meaning could be interpreted differently across cultures? Why?

Images such as photographs, visual illustrations, or in-person phenomena.

What is the image?

  • You: What concept(s) does the image evoke in you?
  • Other: What concept(s) could the image evoke for someone very different from you?

What concept(s) could the image evoke for someone very different from you?

What type of sign is this?

  • Icon: The image resembles the concept being signified
  • Index: When we see the image, it suggests something else is going on
  • Symbolic: The image is arbitrary, but we know the meaning because we learned it somewhere

Is this image problematic, considering its meaning could be interpreted differently across cultures? Why?

Audible natural or human-made sounds.

What is the sound?

  • You: What concept(s) does the sound evoke in you?
  • Other: What concept(s) could the sound evoke for someone very different from you?

What type of sign is this?

  • Icon: The sound resembles the concept being signified
  • Index: When we hear the sound, it suggests something else is going on
  • Symbolic: The sound’s makeup is arbitrary, but we know the meaning because we learned it somewhere

Is this sound problematic, considering its meaning could be interpreted differently across cultures? Why?

A physical object of any kind.

What is the object?

  • You: What concept(s) does the object evoke in you?
  • Other: What concept(s) could the object evoke for someone very different from you?

What type of sign is this?

  • Icon: The object resembles the concept being signified
  • Index: When we touch and engage with the object, it suggests something else is going on
  • Symbolic: The object’s makeup is arbitrary, but we know the meaning because we learned it somewhere

Is this object problematic, considering its meaning could be interpreted differently across cultures? Why?

A bodily movement made by a person.

What is the physical motion that equates to a gesture?

  • You: What concept(s) does the gesture evoke in you?
  • Other: What concept(s) could the gesture evoke for someone very different from you?

What type of sign is this?

  • Icon: The gesture resembles the concept being signified
  • Index: When we experience the gesture, it suggests something else is going on
  • Symbolic: The gesture’s makeup is arbitrary, but we know the meaning because we learned it somewhere

Is this gesture problematic, considering its meaning could be interpreted differently across cultures? Why?

Dennis Cheatham

Associate Professor, Communication Design

Miami University

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